North Korea’s reconciliatory signals need US response

By Zhang Yun Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/13 17:43:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

North Korea held a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding on September 9. It sent three important signals from this unconventional show of military hardware.

First, Kim Jong-un sent a conciliatory signal to the US to maintain the momentum in North Korea-US rapprochement. Unlike previous parades that displayed heavy weaponry and had anti-America slogans, the absence of intercontinental ballistic missiles and mid-range missiles could be interpreted as a positive sign of North Korea's conciliatory attitude toward the US.

Second, the 70th anniversary celebrations seemed to be well coordinated to reassure the US of North Korea's sincerity for continuing dialogue. Kim welcomed the South Korean envoy on September 5 for the third time and conveyed his message of trust toward US President Donald Trump. He also clearly stated the time table of denuclearization which falls within Trump's first term. In addition, Kim also sent a letter to Trump for scheduling a second summit, which the White House praised as a very warm and positive gesture.

Third, North Korea has signaled its shift of focus from military build-up to economic growth. Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea who spoke at the ceremony, focused on economic development. This has been echoing with Kim Jong-un's recent frequent local inspection tours and calls for economic development.

North Korea is trying to urge the US to reciprocate its gesture to maintain a favorable environment for continuing rapprochement. Pyongyang's recent conciliatory behavior needs to be reciprocated. The US has failed to do so except in Trump's occasional tweets. Perhaps, the US thought that the unprecedented summit in Singapore between a serving US president and the North Korean leader would be enough to deal with the issue. Furthermore, Trump's unpredictable behavior and Kim's record have been repeatedly cited by skeptics who doubt the rapprochement will last. It is certainly wise to be cautiously optimistic. But more importantly, it needs to be recognized that the Korean Peninsula is heading for a grand trend that Pyongyang is possible to focus on its economic development in a phased denuclearization process.

First, strategic necessity brought Trump and Kim together. The requirement to transform long-nurtured hostility into conciliation must be driven by strong mutual necessity. Trump needs to show that he has been able to make progress on the North Korea issue for the upcoming mid-term elections and probably for his next presidential campaign as other major diplomatic breakthroughs don't seem to be promising. For Kim, relief from sanctions and the declaration of the end of the Korean War would be imperative for his strategic shift to economic growth.

Second, North Korea has made efforts to provide strong proof for President Trump to justify a second summit with Kim Jong-un. The return of the remains of US soldiers from the Korean War and the release of American citizens were useful outcomes for Trump to hail his tremendous success. Kim's recent letter to Trump for a second summit would help the US president justify another summit that could also be a showpiece for his election campaign. A second summit would definitely lead to more specific and practical measures compared with what was achieved in Singapore.

Third, the major powers in Northeast Asia have been trying hard to create a suitable environment for the rapprochement. China has been quietly filling the gap of loss of reciprocity from the US. Kim has visited China three times and Li Zhanshu, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress attended the parade as Chinese President Xi Jinping's special representative. This is a political recognition of North Korea's recent positive gestures for denuclearization.

On September 18, Kim will receive South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang, which is expected to continue attempts at reconciliation by taking a step in the direction of direct US-North Korea negotiations. It has also been reported that Kim is going to visit Russia in the near future. Japan is also likely to resume dialogue with North Korea.

Rapprochement between old enemies is not easy. Now is the time for the US to grab the opportunity of transforming symbolic goodwill gestures into concrete attempts to bring about peace.

The author is associate professor of National Niigata University Japan and senior fellow, Institute of Advanced Area Studies and Global Governance, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China.

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